Queen's Speech — Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:23 pm on 26th November 2009.

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Photo of The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds Bishop 12:23 pm, 26th November 2009

My Lords, I want to make particular reference to two linked elements in the gracious Speech, referring to child poverty and the Equality Bill, leaving matters of health and education to our own galaxy of talent on this Bench. I welcome the Child Poverty Bill and I hope that we will pass it into law as soon as possible. The commitment expressed here to deal with this most pervasive of social injustices has been a welcome part of this Government's policy. I have three particular comments to make.

First, we are becoming more aware of the need for a minimum income standard for individuals and families. I hope that the Government will commit themselves to having regard to independent research on minimum incomes in this legislation so that we have some independent knowledge of the minimum income necessary to live a fulfilled and effective life. Secondly, we need to watch the prevalence of poverty not simply in the child population as a whole, but in particular groups. For example, the recent report from Save the Children and the Family Fund reveals that 27 per cent of disabled children live in poverty. That continues to be a terrible indictment upon our society. I hope that the Child Poverty Commission, which I welcome, will look carefully at the needs of particular groups in society as it develops its work.

Thirdly, the danger of legislation such as this is that it can make it appear that poverty issues are only for government. Legislation will not work unless others, too, respond to the challenge, including schools, churches and church-based charities. In that connection I salute the work of Church Action on Poverty and Christians Against Poverty in responding to real need. I went to a meeting a few days ago in Leeds of Christian groups which respond to poverty issues. They presented the work that they do to help the homeless, asylum seekers and those who at a very young age move into prostitution. These are all examples of poverty, including child poverty, which Christian groups and many other groups seek to tackle at local levels. We need to continually stress and welcome the role of the voluntary sector in dealing with child poverty.

My response to the Equality Bill is mixed. I welcome the bringing together of disparate strands of equality legislation and I am particularly grateful for the legislation on disability and the way in which it is brought together in the Bill. I had the privilege last night of taking part, with the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, in a memorial event for the late Baroness Chapman of Leeds. It was a wonderful occasion, bringing together at Elland Road her passionate advocacy of the rights of the disabled to equal treatment and her equally passionate support of Leeds United. I am delighted that the Equality Bill responds to and develops the former of those passions, and I hope Ministers have noticed the rise in the fortunes of her and our football club.

However, at the heart of the equality legislation there is a fundamental dilemma. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen commented:

"Everyone is in favour of equality: they just cannot agree about equality of what".

We see this played out time and again in debates about education-equality of opportunity, of provision, of freedom to choose, of outcome. There are times when they are incompatible and choices need to be made. In the Bill there is a dilemma between freedom for individuals to shape their own lives and freedom for groups and communities to define the nature of their common bond. In a pluralistic society, there must be freedom for communities with particular identities to flourish. The Bill is grounded in a view of society as a collection of individuals with rights but fails to take account of the needs of communities to flourish. That can quickly lead to an authoritarian imposition of an individualistic understanding of difference rather than a celebration of plurality within our society.

The Bill, absolutely rightly, defends people from oppression and discrimination, which is why the clauses dealing with disability are particularly welcome. It fails, however, to reflect the way in which faith groups, including churches, must operate in a plural society. For example, the definition of employment for the purposes of an organised religion defines that employment as,

"leading or assisting in the observation of liturgical or ritualistic practices of the religion", or,

"promoting or explaining the doctrines of the religion".

I cannot imagine that any Christian would recognise their faith in those descriptions, and I do not believe that it would be true of those of other religions either. Christian belief and the doctrines of religion are promoted through the whole life of the believer. Faith is not an add-on, but integral to the whole of life and behaviour. In practice, especially in smaller churches or faith groups, many employees play a multi-tasked role which could fall foul of the requirement that their employment wholly or mainly involve leading worship.

There remains an inadequate social analysis underpinning the Bill. It fails to take seriously the right of communities in a plural society to order their own life, yet our society is dependent for its common good on the flourishing of such communities. The Bill allows exemptions to religious groups only on grounds which fail to understand the nature of religion itself, and so it fails to provide an equal freedom to practise a religion according to the beliefs, practices and ethics intrinsic to that faith.

That is damaging both to individuals and their practice of faith, and to the contribution which religious groups seek to provide to our plural society, not least in the eradication of child poverty, as in the examples which I have used, which is so rightly dear to the heart of this Government.